Jennifer Scarlott piques your curiosity about two mythical creatures residing in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.
Dear Cub kids,
The first time that I saw a tiger in the wild in your country, it hit me hard that I was seeing a mythical being. And that’s the way it has been every time since.
Photo: Maulshree Gangwar.
The news that came roaring across print and television and Internet this month – that India’s tiger population has increased in the past few years – made me think anew, in the cold and dark of a New York winter, of your flaming cats… cats that walk not just through pages of myth and legend, but through India’s living, breathing forests.
Here in New York City, the only living tigers (Siberian) to be seen are at the Bronx Zoo’s ‘Tiger Mountain’ exhibit. I don’t like to see these beasts in captivity.
But there are some mythical creatures that I do love to visit in New York City these days – two gigantic, clattering, astounding, and astonishing phoenixes, flying through the enormous vault of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
No photo does them justice. These gigantic birds are the artistic inspiration of Xu Bing, an internationally acclaimed conceptual artist and educator, born in Chongqing, China in 1955. Over the course of two years, Xu Bing gathered trash and debris from construction sites across the changing urban landscape of Beijing, transforming hard hats, jackhammers, shovels and other salvaged material into what has proven to be his most ambitious project yet: two 5,500 kg., 30 m. phoenix sculptures. Mr. Xu was moved by the poor working conditions for migrant labourers at Beijing’s construction sites. The birds were originally intended for a new building in the Chinese capital, but Mr. Xu refused the developer’s demands that he temper his work’s social message by beautifying the phoenixes.
I can hardly describe what it is like to enter St. John’s, the fourth largest Christian church in the world. It is literally jaw-dropping. But with two enormous phoenixes suspended from scaffolding high in the huge nave, one feels oneself in the presence of true wildness. The birds don’t soar – they race through space, one seemingly in pursuit of the other, jaws snapping, tails curving, wings beating the air.
Wherever it is found in cultural story-telling, the phoenix is benevolent and life-giving, often symbolising rebirth and resurrection. In ancient Egypt, the phoenix was associated with the sun god Ra. Ancient Rome used an image of a phoenix on its coins. The immortal Simurgh, a phoenix, was the mediator between Earth and Sky in Iranian lore.
Simurgh lived in the Tree of Life, and whenever it took flight, the tree shook and seeds fell out of it, replenishing the Earth’s plants. The phoenix first appeared in Chinese mythology in 2600 BCE, as one of four celestial beings connected to the creation myth. The phoenix, whose song is exceptionally beautiful and meaningful, is said to have a special appreciation of human music.
The tiger is nothing less than an earth-bound phoenix, protecting the seed-dispersing, water-producing forests of natural India. Long may both creatures live, one in myth and in art, the other, in sunlight and in shadow.
Author: Jennifer Scarlott First appeared in: Sanctuary Cub, March, 2015.